How Marvel’s Blade blazed a bloody trail for Black Panther
Blade films helped change our too-long whitewashed view of what comic book movies can be, writes Chris Alexander.
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The release of Marvel’s latest juggernaut comic book epic Black Panther has extra social gravitas because the titular character is African American, a rarity in a racially biased fantasy movie landscape ripe with predominantly Caucasian superheroes. But as relevant as Black Panther is, another comic book flick got there first — a movie that not only featured a Black actor front and centre in both the film and marketing campaign, but also laid the blueprint for the monolithic Marvel movie template that currently holds dominion over Hollywood.
We’re talking about Blade, the smash hit 1998 film starring Wesley Snipes and based on Marv Wolfman’s half-vampire, half-human hero that first appeared in 1973 in the pages of Marvel’s long-running ’70s Gothic horror series, The Tomb of Dracula.
While Black Panther’s 1966 pulp debut in Marvel’s popular Fantastic Four book predated Blade’s first bow, Blade represented something far angrier than the status quo. His character was a direct response to the volatile social climate that followed in the wake of the rise of the actual Black Panther party, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam war. He was also part of the cultural response that created a wave of “Blaxploitation” action pictures like Coffy and Shaft, films that gave the world streetwise, dignified and mad-as-hell heroes who refused to let oppression overtake them.
Here’s a look at just how vital of a character Blade was, and still is, by dissecting the first picture, and its pair of flawed but fascinating sequels.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Stephen Norrigton’s ballistic bloodbath was a force to be reckoned with then, and is even more palpable a picture today. Snipes flips Wolfman’s stake-wielding avenging angel into a supernatural samurai, perpetually at odds with the world around him. Brandishing a silver sword and various ghoul-obliterating weapons, Blade aims to eliminate all vampires, partly as payback for what they did to his human mother (a vamp bite tainted Blade in the womb, turning him into a hybrid) and partly because he despises that part of himself that he sees as decidedly corrupt.
Even though Snipes himself has scoffed at any serious allegory in the film, Blade is a clear representation of Black America pushed to the fringes by the corporate white elite. The movie is many things but at its bloody heart, it’s a story of the “have-nots” raging hard against the “haves” — in this case the wealthy, decidedly corrupt and Aryan-like Vampire Nation. But on top of its serious subtext, Blade’s kinetic martial arts meltdowns (that pre-dated The Matrix and are superior in almost every way) proved that an R-rated superhero movie could be thoughtful and intelligent and still kick your ass. It’s a stunner.
BLADE II (2002)
Current fantasy film “It Boy” Guillermo del Toro helmed this highly regarded followup, a film that pushes the first movie’s urban pulse to the back seat in favour of endless action. It has a horror-centric spine and features a story that is more about father/son conflict than social rage. And while Snipes is in immaculate form, the non-stop special effects and questionable character detours make it a shadow of the scrappy, inventive original.
BLADE: TRINITY (2004)
The first movie’s screenwriter — David S. Goyer — returned to direct this troubled, much maligned final (so far) chapter that mines the Tomb of Dracula comics for additional characters and ends up overloading the already dodgy narrative, pushing Blade into the background. Dracula himself appears looking like an underwear model and Ryan Reynolds’ pre-Deadpool smartass Hannibal King is tough to take. Still, the action sequences are solid and there’s a welcome return to neon-soaked, dark and sinister city streets that made the first film so urgent.
Despite the sequels’ diminishing returns, the Blade films blazed a bold trail, slashing out a path for Black Panther — and hopefully, a wealth of genre movies like it — to affect and change our too-long whitewashed view of what comic book movies can be.
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